With five games remaining in the regular season, the Toronto Maple Leafs forward corps appears to finally be healthy. With the playoffs drawing near and Kasperi Kapanen returning from a concussion, it will be interesting to see how the lines shake out. The only line that head coach Mike Babcock hasn’t really touched is the Zach Hyman-John Tavares-Mitch Marner line.
The Leafs have arguably one of the most talented top nine forward groups in the NHL with 10 players. Forward spots one through nine seem to be accounted for and Connor Brown is unlikely to slide further than the fourth line. That leaves two spots open on the fourth line with four candidates vying for a spot. Here’s a look at what each one of them brings to the table in a potential playoff series.
Despite missing six weeks due to a broken foot, Ennis has tallied 12 goals in 48 games. That’s a 20-goal pace across 82 games, which is impressive for a fourth-line player on a league minimum contract. He is actually third on the Leafs behind only Tavares and Matthews in goals per 60 minutes with 1.528.
Compared to Frederik Gauthier (age 23), Trevor Moore (23) and Nic Petan (24), Ennis is the veteran of the group at age 29 in his 10th NHL season. This is actually Ennis’ best goal total since scoring 20 goals in 2014-15 with the Buffalo Sabres.
For his resurgent play and battles through injury, Ennis is the Leafs’ nomination for the Masterton Trophy.
Of the candidates for fourth line duty, Ennis is probably the most skilled right now. He can slide all the way up the lineup and play with Auston Matthews, just as he’s done at times this season if the situation calls for it. He could even see some power play time and give the Leafs a different look come playoff time.
There are few fourth liners out there with his goal scoring ability and the Leafs should be thrilled to have this kind of depth to combat any injury issues they may come across in their quest for the Cup.
Of the four players vying for playing time, Petan is the most likely to find himself in the press box. This isn’t to say that Petan is the weakest of the four options.
As a recent pick-up at this season’s trade deadline, Petan is probably the least familiar option for the Leafs’ coaching staff. He’s only played in five games for the Leafs since the trade.
Petan possesses a knack for scoring as evidenced by his 52 points in 52 games for the Manitoba Moose in the AHL last season. In the Winnipeg Jets organization, he fell victim to an abundance of middle-six forward, and as a 5-foot-9 forward, there just wasn’t a fit for him on their fourth line.
His pick-up and subsequent signing of a two-year extension were more of a long-term insurance play for re-signing of Toronto’s restricted free agent wingers than it was a win-now move.
That being said, if there’s an injury to one of the Leafs’ scoring wingers, Petan has the skillset and potential to play up in the lineup. He’s more of a “break glass in case of emergency” option in the 2019 Playoffs, but beyond this season could be a real piece for Toronto.
On the left wing, Moore has plenty of offensive upside. He has 23 goals in 46 AHL games this season. The trades of Josh Leivo and Par Lindholm, as well as a few injuries on the wing, have opened up a spot for Moore to get some time at the NHL level.
While his slight 5-foot-10 frame raises similar questions to Petan, Moore has been grinding away and shown he can hold up in his 21 games with the Leafs this season. In an article for the Toronto Star by Kevin McGran, Toronto Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe spoke glowingly on Moore’s work ethic:
“He’s just a player that decided he was going to work as hard as he could on every single shift, and he was going to listen to every thing that was being asked of him and expected of him in terms of the structure and details that are required to play at the NHL level,” Marlies coach Sheldon Keefe said. “Because of those habits he formed, he’s able to do it there. It’s fun to watch him. I’m really happy he’s got that chance. He’s really earned it,”from ‘Marlies grad Trevor Moore driving
successof Leafs’ fourth line’, The Toronto Star – 7/3/19.
Moore has a good blend of offensive upside, an active stick and strong board play. He’s the type of player the Leafs can feel confident about moving up and down the lineup over the course of a playoff series.
Gauthier is the most traditional fit the Leafs have for their fourth-line
In the playoffs, teams tend to shorten their bench and feed their stars the extra minutes. So why not carry a fourth liner whose game doesn’t demand a ton of ice time and can be used situationally to win that crucial defensive zone draw?
The Leafs have options to play
While Gauthier may lack the speed and skill of his counterparts, I like the idea of having him in the lineup come playoff time. He gives the team a different look with his physical play and I think his faceoff ability could be a huge asset.
With the Leafs on the cusp of clinching their playoff spot and the lineup still a work in progress, it will be interesting to see what combinations Babcock will ice when the games matter most.
It’s possible that we see all four of Ennis, Gauthier, Moore and Petan over the course of a series. With Ennis as the only one with playoff experience (only 14 playoff games in ten seasons), it will be interesting to see who steps up. In the playoffs, depth is key and–at forward at least–the Leafs should feel confident that they’ll have many different options to handle the grind.